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Perdita Huston Human Rights Awards Interview with The Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck

Interview by Karen Mulhauser, Former UNA-NCA President

The Honorable Vivian Lowery Derryck is a powerful leader in global efforts to support democracy, development and gender equity. When Vivian was asked if she could tell us how she knew Perdita Huston and how her work is aligned with Perdita’s vision and work, she highlighted many parallel paths. But first she reflected on how her work benefited from engagement with Perdita and the work and visions of many other wonderful women leaders such as Gerry Ferraro, Arvonne Fraser, Bella Abzug, Dorothy Height, Madeleine Albright, Wangari Maathai, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She also reflected on how she learned from Native Americans about the importance of storytelling. Vivian’s life story is vivid with experiences related to democracy and the important role of civil society in maintaining democracy; development; the empowerment of girls and women and the imperative of girls’ education to achieve true development and democracy. Her commitment to supporting democracy began with reflections on how her ancestors “resisted slavery, survived reconstruction and established” successful lives.

Vivian Lowery Derryck knew Perdita Huston well and indicated that their work aligned especially well with regards to empowering women and girls. Receiving this award is “the culmination of everything I’ve worked for all these years”.

Her lifetime of experiences working for equity began in 1965 with Operation Crossroads Africa in Cote d’Ivoire where she saw first-hand how girls did not have access to education as they worked in the fields while boys went to school. She knew then that she wanted to correct this inequity and throughout her amazing life, she has been addressing the need for girls to receive education to improve their lives and their communities.

Girls’ and women’s efforts were highlighted during the 1980 UN World Conference for Women: Equality, Development and Peace in Copenhagen, Denmark. As the Director of the U.S. Secretariat established for Copenhagen preparations, Vivian worked with Sarah Weddington from the Carter administration who co-led the U.S. delegation with U.S. Ambassador to the UN Don McHenry, and Perdita was an adviser to the Delegation.

Vivian had a Personal Service Contract with Arvonne Fraser in the Women in Development Office of USAID. She prepared an important study on the Comparative Functionality of Formal and Non-formal Education for Girls and Women. The study documents how it is obvious that women can’t make fully informed decisions if they can’t read. The study showed every development indicator improved as girls are educated. It was exciting to be part of the WID office, highlighting how communities improve as girls and women are empowered. She then became a Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of State and continued to work for gender equity.

After experience inside government, in 1982 Vivian became Executive Vice President and the Director of the International Division at the National Council of Negro Women with a focus on girls and women. Then she worked at Meridian House and at National Democratic Institute, African American Institute, and later was Senior VP and Director of Public-Private Partnerships at the former AED [2001–09]. While at AED, she continued to work on women’s leadership in Africa, especially in Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. In interviews she would ask, “When was the first time you knew you were a leader?” She said, “I used to get such fascinating answers — so many women talked about their fathers’ influence and support. They didn’t talk about their mothers in leadership.” She hopes that is changing.

In 2008, she saw a brochure about a new Harvard program that said, ‘Looking for a few great leaders’. “It was time for me to leave AED, so this seemed a good next step — The Advanced Leadership Initiative was a program mature leaders willing to use their accumulated experience to make the world a better place. I was a Public Service Fellow at this new program… It was a fantastic year. I learned about social enterprise…I set up the Bridges Institute as a nonprofit with the mission of strengthening African governance and democracy. I invited members from my Harvard program to join the Bridges board.Four board members from my ALIclass have been on the board since the beginning, offering financial and substantive support. After a year at Harvard I came home with this new nonprofit and in 2010 I started ‘Cote d’Ivoire Watch’ an initiative that included NGOs, private sector, nationals of the country and U.S. government representatives… The ‘Watches’ last until democracy is restored. Cote d’Ivoire Watch was over in 2012”. Mali Watch lasted longer. It started in 2012 and continues today as the Mali Affinity Group as a part of the Alliance for Peace-building.

When asked about working both inside and outside of government, if she preferred one over the other. and how she defines the value of each, she referred to her early awareness of the importance of governments’ roles in setting and implementing policy. However, later she was also aware that civil society and advocacy have a strong role in defining what those policies will be. If we want to affect change, we must focus on policies and policymakers. Both government and non-government have their roles. Regarding which has the most impact, she said that it’s a mix of both.

When asked about closing thoughts and what she is most proud of, she said one result of her women leadership work today is, “I am delighted to see this next generation of competent, confident young women leaders — such as the young — 35-years-old female Foreign Minister of Mali that I have worked with since the 1990’s. I see these young woman in [US] Congressional offices, really dedicated and so smart, influencing policy in major ways. Women in their 30’s and 40's — strong, confident, knowledgeable. And the young African women, reaching out to senior African women, saying that they need to be included. And these mature African women leaders hear the young voices and embrace them.. Plus we have YALI, the Young African Leaders Program, a U.S. program that’s building a reservoir of accomplished young African leadership. So that’s what I’m happiest about — the work will be carried on… it’s a result of partnerships.”

“The best thing that’s happened to me — literally — is this award. Perdita was such a compelling visionary on women’s rights and challenges and a spiritual presence as well. She really was an icon for the women-in-development field. I met her in 1977, when my family and I returned to the U.S. after living in Liberia for four years. I said I wanted to meet her because she had written books about empowering women and I could see the impact of her writing in the field. She came to dinner and we talked, we bonded on women’s equity, and became great friends. The award is an annual refreshing of her extraordinary spirit.”

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